Undercurrents: With Edgerly Gone, Are There More Witches Left to Be Hunted?

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday July 10, 2008 - 09:43:00 AM

No one should waste sympathy on Ms. Edgerly for her abrupt firing from her job as Oakland city administrator by Mayor Ron Dellums. City administrators serve on an “at will” basis, meaning that they can be removed at any time by the mayor without cause. That’s the nature of the position, and anyone taking the job knows the risks. Also, if you can believe the local media accounts of Ms. Edgerly’s severance package—and if you’re a regular reader of this column, you know that I faithfully believe local media accounts of Oakland government—then the ousted city administrator has made for herself a soft place to land after being thrown out of her office. 

Further, when you publicly challenge and embarrass your boss—as Ms. Edgerly did when she announced she was reneging on her deal with Mr. Dellums to retire effective July 31, and then made herself unavailable to the mayor over the crucial Thursday afternoon/Friday morning period before her Friday suspension when Mr. Dellums was trying unsuccessfully to confer with the administrator by telephone—you have the accept whatever consequences may come. 

Don’t cry for Deborah on those scores. 

On the other hand, Oakland ought to consider itself deeply embarrassed over our actions and reactions in the two weeks preceding the Edgerly firing. For a city which boasts of such a progressive and civil libertarian tradition, we did not acquit ourselves well in those days. 

Ask most Oakland residents what got Ms. Edgerly in trouble and, almost universally, they will say that it was because she was accused of tipping off members of the Acorn Gang—most specifically, her nephew—about a planned police raid that eventually netted 54 arrests. 

We see that allegation repeated again in this Wednesday’s column by Phil Matier and Andrew Ross of the San Francisco Chronicle, the pair who did as much as anyone to pour fuel on the Edgerly bonfire during the last two weeks. In their column, Mr. Matier and Mr. Ross write that Ms. Edgerly “got into hot water over allegations that she injected herself into a police investigation.” 

Once more we ask: Who, exactly, is making those allegations? 

Ask most Oakland residents who, actually, has accused Ms. Edgerly of the crime of tipping off the Acorn Gang—and it would be a crime, a serious crime, if that’s what the city administrator did—and you draw blank looks as an answer. In fact, to date, no law enforcement agency—not the Oakland Police Department, not the office of the Alameda County district attorney, not the local office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation—has come out and publicly said that it is looking into criminal charges against Ms. Edgerly stemming from the June 7 auto tow incident or allegations that she criminally impeded the Operation Nutcracker investigations against the Acorn Gang. 

Why, then, were Oakland residents—and some Oakland officeholders—so quick to believe that Ms. Edgerly is guilty of these charges? 

In part, it is because, unlike her immediate predecessors, Henry Gardner—who had the charm to be able to disarm his opponents—and Robert Bobb—who had the intimidating manner to scare them off—Ms. Edgerly has no natural political defenses. Either unwilling or unable to craft a positive political image for herself, she became largely defined as an arrogant, grumpy bureaucrat, responding snappishly when criticized, such as when Oakland Auditor Courtney Ruby issued an audit unfavorable to the city administrator’s office. In addition, unlike Mr. Gardner and Mr. Bobb, Ms. Edgerly never advanced an independent theory of city governance around which any accomplishments could be measured. When reports of nepotism and favoritism under her command surfaced, those became the working definition of the Deborah Edgerly administration. 

But nepotism and favoritism are not criminal acts, and pale in comparison to the offenses many Oaklanders believe—without any proffer of evidence—that Ms. Edgerly committed. If, indeed, she tipped off the Acorn Gang in advance of the June 17 raids and arrests, they could have ended in the death of the undercover officers or confidential informants who we know were providing Oakland Police with information on the gang, as well as a bloody ambush or shootout when police came to make the arrests. That returns us to the original question: what led so many Oaklanders to unquestionably accept Ms. Edgerly’s guilt of such criminal acts? 

In large part, of course, it was much of the local media leading the charge, immediately making the constant storyline “Why hasn’t Mayor Dellums gotten rid of Deborah Edgerly?” rather than “What are the actual charges against Ms. Edgerly, if any, and are they true?” Ms. Edgerly’s guilt or innocence, as far as the local media was concerned, was a largely unexplored and uncared about issue. 

But local officials—at least some of them—have a large share in the blame as well.  

On Wednesday the 25th, the day after the abortive press conference in which Mr. Dellums and Ms. Edgerly originally announced that the city administrator was retiring effective July 1, Chris Heredia of the Chronicle reported, “City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente said it is Dellums’ decision to let Edgerly work through July. He said he was reserving judgment about the allegations in the police report, pending the outcome of their investigation. ‘He has the authority and responsibility for making that decision,’ De La Fuente said. ‘We don’t have a vote on that. There’s no question these are serious allegations, but there’s an investigation going on. Whatever the results are on that decision, the mayor is responsible.’” 

Moderate enough. But by week’s end, Mr. De La Fuente’s emphasis was on criticism of the mayor, rather than on making sure due process or presumption of innocence was followed in the case of Ms. Edgerly. 

After Mr. Dellums announced, on Friday the 27th, that he was suspending Ms. Edgerly through her retirement date, Kelly Rayburn of the Tribune was reporting Mr. De La Fuente saying the suspension decision was “long overdue,” and Mr. Heredia added, “City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, who had suggested that the mayor bar Edgerly from access to city offices, criticized Dellums for waiting too long to put her on leave.” 

These last statements of the council president seem innocent, until you examine the context in which they were given. Two days before, the Tribune was reporting that “De La Fuente, like some other councilmembers, said he hasn’t received adequate information about the situation.” And “There have been a lot of things mentioned in the newspapers and we have not been privy to some of the information that’s going around,” the Tribune reported Mr. De La Fuente as saying on Wednesday, June 25, the same day as Mr. Dellums and Ms. Edgerly held their press conference. “As a responsible City Council, I believe we should have all the information we can to represent the city and to represent the citizens.” Oakland city councilmembers did not get a closed door briefing by the city attorney on the Edgerly matter until the following Monday, presumably when the “adequate information” on the situation was provided. 

So a week before Mr. De La Fuente had received what he would characterize as “adequate information” on the Edgerly situation, the council president was already loudly and forcefully concluding that the city administrator should be suspended. But suspended for what? On this subject, Mr. De La Fuente was silent. 

An UnderCurrents column reader, identifying himself only as Carlos Gomes, writes to give some of the thinking that led to the almost universal bum-rushing of Ms. Edgerly. 

“Ms. Edgerly as the city administrator with oversight powers the police should have stayed away from the scene of her nephew’s run in with the police. Period.” Mr. Gomes writes. “She jump started her own problems. Had she not come down there she would still be in her job. ... the allegation that she was tipping of her nephew to imminent police action is harder to defend when she is willing to come running when he calls her for help with the police. again, appearances.” 

Mr. Gomes then gets to what he believes is the real heart of the city administrator’s problem. Ms. Edgerly, he writes, “has a number of family members working for the city, maybe more than a dozen? Looks bad. It’s great to help family but when you run a city? Looks real bad.” 

This brings us, again, to a crucial point in this saga. Is Deborah Edgerly under fire because of allegations her actions this summer with regard to the Acorn Gang—allegations that may or may not be under investigation by some law enforcement agency or other, we still do not know—or for past actions regarding allegations of nepotism? This is more than a minor point, and may reveal some of the political motivation behind the Edgerly attacks. If the problem with Ms. Edgerly is mainly what may or may have not occurred during the first two weeks of June of this year, then the responsibility falls mainly in the lap of Mayor Ron Dellums. But if the problem is nepotism, and allegations that she packed Oakland city jobs with friends and family, then the time frame for these transgressions stretches backwards, putting the responsibility for oversight her actions on former Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, who elevated her to the position in 2004. 

And if Ms. Edgerly was practicing nepotism over the four years of her city administrator tenure—as observers like Mr. Gomes appear to be implying—then why did it not come to the attention, sooner, of City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, who only began loudly complaining of the practice only after the Acorn Gang allegations? The City Council, after all, has oversight responsibility over Oakland city government. 

Over the past several weeks, we have seen a firestorm of criticism over Deborah Edgerly. Like most firestorms, it has provided a good deal of heat, but little light. Now that Ms. Edgerly is out the door, and the temperature has begun to cool, two issues remain: 

1. Is Deborah Edgerly under criminal investigation for any actions she may have taken with regard to OPD’s Operation Nutcracker? Will any law enforcement agency come forward and acknowledge such investigations, if any, as well as any results? 

2. Is Deborah Edgerly guilty of nepotism or any illegal actions in her capacity as Oakland city manager during her four year tenure? If so, who was responsible for oversight of Ms. Edgerly’s activities during that four year period, how did they exercise that oversight, what knowledge, if any, did they have of any improprieties by the city administrator during that period, and what did they do in response? 

If we are going to have a witch hunt in Oakland, my friends, let’s at least make sure we get all the witches into the circle to join the spectacle.